Aged 74, Jameson Masuku, like others in his age group, says he can still throw a punch, making reference to one of 92-year-old President Robert Mugabe’s numerous statements defending his refusal to exit the political boxing ring.
BY NQOBANI NDLOVU
Not even his failing health will deter him, Masuku added, as he spoke passionately about Maphisa villagers’ fight for their land against the Agricultural and Rural Development Authority (Arda) in Matabeleland South.
So nasty is the fight that Arda Antelope employees in Maphisa now face death threats from villagers.
“We will do anything to fight for our land as it is our birthright,” Masuku declared.
Police have also been deployed at the Arda Maphisa estate to keep watch.
But the villagers have remained resolute, even as their determination may land them in trouble.
On Wednesday night, 300 hay-bales of livestock feed belonging to Arda were burnt to ashes by “suspected angry villagers” as the fight rages on.
Only 74 hay-bales were spared.
“I was born here in 1942. This is my only home and I cannot be expected to start a new life somewhere at my age,” Masuku, from Mahetshe village, said, adding “we have no option but to fight eviction by Arda.”
Arda has entered into a joint farming project with Trek Petroleum, but villages allege the venture is eating into their grazing, farming and ancestral lands.
The project will see Arda expanding its operations by a further 400 hectares, a development frowned upon by villagers in Zwehamba, Matankeni and Mahetshe villages.
To make matters worse, the villagers claimed Arda has not said anything about compensation.
Robert Mafu (84), a villager at Zwehamba, said: “I have been residing at this place for the past 69 years. I have my homestead, farming and grazing lands here and no other place I can call home.
“We are not just fighting eviction for the sake of it; we are fighting because it is our birthright. We inherited this land from our parents, and likewise, our children and grandchildren should inherit this land as well.”
Last month, villagers angry with the on-going farming project encroaching into their lands staged a protest at Arda, and several were arrested, including Matabeleland South Senator Sithembile Mlotshwa.
Fifty-five villagers have since filed a High Court application suing Arda for allegedly invading their ancestral lands and annexing it for expansion of their joint venture project.
In their application, the villagers claimed Arda and Trek forcibly invaded their homesteads, farming and grazing land without a court order.
“The first and second respondents . . . have proceeded to demolish and raze down some of the applicants’ homesteads, farming and grazing land without a court order or writ of execution authorising such conduct and have since threatened to demolish all the applicants’ homestead structures, farming and grazing land,” the application reads in part.
Arda and Trek Petroleum, however, challenged the application, accusing the villagers of encroaching into Arda’s land.
Arda claimed it acquired the disputed land during the Rhodesian era when it was operating as Telcor.
High Court judge Justice Martin Makonese last week indefinitely reserved judgement in the case.
Mlotshwa said despite the court setback, they would soldier on.
“The judgement, if against us, is not the end of the road. We will use other avenues to reverse this whole project. Villagers are worried sick about prospects of losing their land,” she said.
“The government has abdicated its responsibility of ensuring people have shelter, among others, as guaranteed in the Constitution.”
Mlotshwa said villagers faced twin-evils — hunger and Arda grabbing their lands.
“Already, the villagers face hunger and instead of government addressing this issue, it allows Arda to add onto their woes by grabbing their lands,” she said .
“What this means is that they face hunger again next year, even if we receive good rains since there is no time to look for new farming lands to prepare for the agricultural season.”
According to reports, the Matabeleland South Joint Operations Command convened an emergency meeting recently at Maphisa growth point over the land dispute between Arda and villagers, amid reports Matobo South legislator Soul Mahalima Ncube (Zanu PF) was grilled for reportedly siding with villagers.
Rural Development, Preservation and Promotion of National Culture and Heritage minister Abednico Ncube was quoted in the State media recently accusing opposition political parties and non-government organisations of attempting to sabotage the Arda-Trek farming project.
The Dumiso Dabengwa-led Zapu and the Matabeleland Institute for Human Rights (MIHR) have also waded into the saga.
Zapu deputy national spokesperson Iphuthile Maphosa said his party’s visit to Maphisa last week revealed “continued segregatory antics by the colonial regime” which “we fought and defeated in 1980”.
“We are surprised that the Zanu PF government is still perpetuating the [former Prime Minister Ian] Smith regime land dispossessions as we are told the pegs they are using were put in place in 1972 by the colonial government which people fought against and defeated in 1980,” he said.
“We were of the assumption that the Smith regime was defeated and done with together with its racist segregatory laws but alas.”
However, Arda Trek Antelope Estate manager Alec Chinyai denied charges the State entity was grabbing land belonging to villagers.
He said Arda was expanding farming operations within their boundary, contrary to claims by villagers that the estate was expanding into their property.
Instead, Chinyai accused some villagers of allocating themselves pieces of land at the Arda estate.
“The boundary has been in existence since 1930, although pegging was done in 1947. The land was lying idle and what is happening now is that we want to utilise that virgin land,” he
“Villagers allocated land among themselves for dry-farming purposes because it was idle and that is the land we are reclaiming now.”
He added: “There is at least 2 000 hectares of virgin land which we intend to expand to, subject to availability of funds.
“Under this joint venture project, we want to expand current farming operations by 400ha and those hectares are within the 2 000ha that belongs to Arda and is lying idle.”
Arda has all along been utilising only about 750ha, he added.
“We are not in any way in a fight with villagers,” he said.
“They have always been the beneficiaries of Arda agricultural operations. For example, we employ nearly 90% of the villagers in this area. We allow them to graze their livestock here, to gather firewood and grass for thatching.
Actually, the reason why there were few livestock deaths in Maphisa is because we allowed villagers to graze their livestock here.”
Trek Petroleum managing director Onias Sanyangure also denied charges the fuel company was evicting villagers from their lands.
“To be honest, I don’t know why you are involving Trek in this issue. Arda are the owners of that land. We don’t own that land. It’s tarnishing our image.
“We are just into farming and we have nothing against the villagers,” Sanyangure said in a telephone interview on Wednesday.
But MIHR is not convinced, and accuses Arda of rights violations against villagers’ right to agricultural land, freedom from arbitrary eviction, right to dignity, food, water, shelter and life.
“The villagers of Maphisa have a choice: either sit back and be victims of another Rhodesian kind of behaviour of expropriating and dispossessing people’s lands without consultation or free, prior and informed consent and compensation; or stand up and peacefully take action to defend their rights and lands from being expropriated using a colonial boundary that was unjustly pegged by a colonial government that did so through gross human rights violations,” MIHR general-secretary Benedict Sibasa said in a statement.